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Standards-Based Educational Reform
Many teachers and administrators have had extensive experience working with educational standards, an approach to instruction in which educators align lessons, units, and assessments with a series of detailed benchmarks for the knowledge and skills students should master at their grade levels. According to the National Research Council, “Standards serve as a basis of educational reform across the nation as educators and policy makers respond to the call for a clear definition of desired outcomes of schooling and a way to measure student success in terms of these outcomes.” For teachers, the standards provide an explicit outline of what districts and states expect students to learn by the end of each academic year.
From State Standards to the Common Core
While state and district standards provide a means for educators to work toward common goals, they fail to provide a unified series of academic benchmarks for the country as a whole. Some districts or states have completely different expectations and standards than others. To rectify this issue, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSCO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) announced a national initiative in 2009 and developed a framework merging the diverse state standards into a single set of national standards, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The organizational bodies indicated that, in developing these standards, the emphasis was to make them:
- relevant to the real world
- geared toward preparing students for college and careers
- designed to help students compete in the global economy
- worded concisely and clearly so that parents, educators, and students would understand expectations
Many educational experts and stakeholders participated in the development of these standards. While the federal government offers incentives and grants for states that adopt the national standards, the government had no role in creating them.
As of 2013, the adopters of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) include 45 states, four territories, and the District of Columbia. The CCSS address academic benchmarks for kindergarten through 12th grade, and according to the organizers, they encourage nationwide undertakings such as creating textbooks and digital resources aligned with CCSS, developing comprehensive assessments, and arranging support for teachers and schools. The adoption of the CCSS also helps colleges and professional development trainers devise improved, unified teacher preparation programs.
The Common Core Recommendations for English Language Learners: English Language Arts
The CCSS for English language arts (ELA) cover challenging content such as classical myths, international stories, historical documents about the formation of the United States of America, and Shakespeare’s writing. Starting in the primary grades, students also encounter reading material on subjects across the curriculum, touching on nonfiction topics in history, science, and more.
However, it is a fact that the CCSS include little mention of issues that teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) may encounter while teaching this more difficult material. In the introduction to the CCSS, the developers acknowledge the presence of ELLs in the classroom, but they admit that specifying the many resources and supports necessary for ELLs to reach the grade-level benchmarks is “beyond the scope” of the standards.
Fortunately, the developers of the CCSS do understand that ELLs experience unusual challenges in mastering grade-level skills in ESL and general classrooms. They have authored a separate document containing a list of strategies and recommendations for educators working with the ELL population. The first section of their recommendations concerns the application of the CCSS for ELA.
The following list includes key ways to support ELLs in reaching grade-level standards in ELA in the areas of listening, speaking, reading, and writing:
- Districts and schools can hire and provide continuing training to teachers and personnel who are qualified to work with students from diverse backgrounds.
- Educators can focus on the linguistic and academic strengths ELLs bring to the classroom.
- Schools should provide multiple pathways and opportunities to engage with language and literacy.
- Curriculum and instruction can build English skills of students while also affording them the opportunity to engage in grade-level tasks.
- Educators should design and implement a curriculum that is comprehensible to ELLs, yet imparts the skills necessary to prepare for college and careers.
- Teachers can integrate ample opportunities for discussions and other interactions that promote language practice and deepen their linguistic knowledge.
- Educators should utilize additional resources to support instruction, provide practice, and deepen student learning.
- Students should be given opportunities to work with English speakers who can model proper, fluid use of the language.
At the heart of these recommendations is the recognition that although students may have limited proficiency in English, they nonetheless bring many skills and rich backgrounds to the classroom. Educators will meet with greater success in supporting their students if they build upon their students’ existing cultural and linguistic knowledge, including their use of their home languages.
The recommendations also acknowledge that working with ELLs often requires more personalized instruction and creative methods of support. In addition, students arrive in the classroom at widely divergent levels of literacy in their home languages. Educators can use the CCSS as a framework, but they also need to implement systemic instruction that targets English proficiency.
The CCSS recommendations for English Language Learners: Mathematics
Like the CCSS for language arts, the standards for mathematics are wide-ranging and challenging. Students in the primary grades must show mastery in identifying and using whole numbers, addition, subtractions, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals. By the middle grades and high school, students have to apply these skills to complex problems involving real-world issues. They must strategize and reason mathematically and explain their thinking with appropriate terminology.
The designers of the CCSS for mathematics have emphasized the progression of skill development and the need for students to be internationally competitive in their knowledge. Due to the increasing complexity of these mathematical challenges, the second section of the recommendations for ELLs concerns mathematics instruction. While some may consider mathematics a chance for students with limited English proficiency to shine, we cannot assume that these students will perform at grade level without receiving specialized instruction in English. The CCSS embrace a very language-heavy and context-specific type of problem-solving in which students explore deeply and explain problem-solving strategies, rather than merely memorizing formulas and algorithms. Discussions form the core of much of the mathematics standards, meaning that ELLs require English proficiency as well as target mathematical vocabulary and general academic language. Students may work with open-ended problems, questions with multiple solutions, concepts demanding group participation, and tasks with real-world applications.
As with the ELA standards, the mathematical standards recognize that students’ diverse home languages, cultural backgrounds, dialects, and slang are resources rather than limitations. Educators who recognize that these modes of expression contribute to the classroom conversation will experience greater success in gaining the active participation of ELLs and, ultimately, helping them perform at grade level in mathematics.
The following list includes key ways to support ELLs in reaching grade-level standards in mathematics:
- Instruction should draw upon multiple modes and supports, such as language, gestures, graphic organizers, realia, drawings, and technology.
- Students can have great success when they switch between their home language and their target language to solve word problems, so long as their English skills are sufficient to comprehend the problem.
- Educators should provide extra support and schema-building to ensure that ELLs comprehend word problems.
- Curriculum should promote discussions about mathematical concepts and strategies. Students should have repeated opportunities to use mathematical language, both verbally and in writing. Mathematical discourse is not merely an introduction or review of academic or mathematical vocabulary. Students need to go further and pose questions, brainstorm strategies, expand upon solutions, or present other problems.
- Educators must create an environment that encourages inquiry. Students require time to use language, negotiate meaning, and practice new academic vocabulary.
Best Practices for ESL Teachers Working with the Common Core State Standards
While the foregoing CCSS guidelines are useful, some professionals have criticized them for being too vague to be practically useful in a classroom context. These teachers find it difficult to meet the academic rigor demanded by the CCSS while still imparting the practical language skills necessary for their ELLs to succeed.
Fortunately, although they are relatively new to schools, the CCSS have inspired a number of creative projects and strategies across the country. The following section outlines several of these strategies and best practices.
Quality Teacher Preparation Programs
As Concordia University points out in its article “Common Core Standards and ESL/ESOL Curriculum,” effective integration of the standards demands high-quality teacher training. To be effective and current, teacher preparation programs should include the following elements:
- Coursework that prepares teachers to identify and draw upon students’ diverse backgrounds and use them to create learning opportunities.
- Instruction in techniques for ensuring full participation from ELLs in the general and ESL classrooms.
- Practice in using accessible language that is fluid, grammatically correct, and useful for scaffolding students to aid in mastering academic language appropriate to their grade level.
- Methods to help teachers provide multiple contexts and opportunities for language use, including conversational and academic English.
Collaboration and Co-Teaching
The CCSS emphasize collaboration between students but also provide opportunities for educators across curricular areas to brainstorm, team teach, or work together in other ways. The Bagwell College of Education has created a guide outlining successful methods in which ESL teachers may jointly design and implement curricula aligned with the CCSS. Among the guide’s recommendations are:
- Creating educator teams who have structured conversations about ELL resources, needs, and ideas.
- Having shared preparation periods several times per week to foster team approaches.
- Integrating opportunities to have more than one teacher in a classroom to create more opportunities for teacher-student interaction.
- Promoting creative planning and teaching formats, such as small-group instruction, cooperative learning, and one-on-one conversations.
ELLs in the primary grades can benefit from the extra support offered by Reading Recovery. A typical Reading Recovery program targets first graders who read below grade level, in light of the fact that students experiencing literacy challenges, including many ELLs, have a comparatively large skills gap relative to the CCSS. Reading Recovery uses highly individualized, differentiated instruction that explicitly breaks down literacy into discrete skills such as letter recognition, reading and writing vocabulary, phonemic awareness, concepts about print, and reading fluency of leveled texts of progressively higher complexity.
Because Reading Recovery recognizes the interconnectedness of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, it supports many of the CCSS as well as reflecting the need for a language-rich, multimodal curriculum to support ELLs in reaching these standards.
Reading Recovery adheres to another key ELA standard for ELLs: using highly qualified teachers with specialized training in identifying students’ strengths and using them during instruction. Reading Recovery’s training process also demands that its instructors be fluent in English and capable of modeling its correct use in an academic context.
In addition, Reading Recovery’s intensive model affords ample opportunities for students to communicate and work with meaning.
Finally, diverse assessments form an integral part of Reading Recovery, as its instructors must continually identify areas in which students need extra support or practice.
Meaningful Professional Development for ESL Teachers
The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, Association highlights the significance of relevant professional development supporting the CCSS. They recommend that professional development be:
- quick to implement in the ELL and ESL classroom
- centered around authentic activities pertaining to ELLs and the standards
- rich with examples of how to use the strategies presented
- open to effective instructional strategies
TESOL identifies several modes of professional development that can succeed, including district training, school-site training, providing curricular resources, coaching, and collaboration.
One tried-and-true, favorite practice of ESL and general classroom teachers turns out to be an ideal way for educators to address the CCSS. According to educational specialist Diane Staehr Fenner of DSF Consulting, activating existing schemas helps ELLs access the complex texts required by the CCSS.
The standards require students to work with a significant amount of nonfiction text from a variety of sources. These materials are often vocabulary-rich and low in the context ELLs need for comprehension. To help ELLs reach grade-level benchmarks, instruction must provide background information and bridge it to what students already. This can be as simple as discussing the historical setting of certain text, or it may involve a teaching strategy such as filling in a KWL chart with what students already know, questions they have, and new information they have learned from the text.
Sharing background information about a text can also involve identifying target vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, textual clues, and unfamiliar grammatical structures, followed by discussing or predicting their meanings.
Engaging in Meaningful Discussions
Many of the CCSS depend on students discussing their strategies, opinions, and results. The role of the ELL teacher is to explicitly model forms of communication, including active listening, summarizing, posing questions, and sharing constructive responses.
Language Magazine’s “Cutting To the Common Core” outlines some best practices for ESL teachers. Instructors can model different types of interactions, so students can hear differences in structure and key words used. Then, teachers can have students participate in a structured dialogue. After that, they may move on to having short, targeted discussions with partners or in small groups. Teachers can also model taking notes, filling in graphic organizers, or using drawings or objects to support a conversation or oral presentation.
Integrating academic vocabulary into class discussions is another challenge. Instructors can explicitly teach vocabulary and then reinforce it with context clues, connect it with cognates or shared roots in the students’ home languages, or brainstorm strategies for clarifying meaning.
Some successful constructs for inspiring relevant conversations include cooperative group activities, keeping dialogue journals, and listening and speaking in a variety of contexts.
Alignment of Goals
In “The Common Core Challenge for ELLs,” authors Rhoda Coleman and Claude Goldenberg focus on the CCSS movement’s lack of attention to the specific issues of teaching ELLs, brainstorming ways to address students’ language needs within the more overarching goals of the CCSS.
One key area the authors highlight is the need for teachers, administrations, schools, and districts to align their goals. Teachers cannot do their work in a vacuum. Organizational support aids educators in accessing the resources and techniques for teaching their ELLs. This might take the form of a school-wide commitment to promoting language use across the curriculum or an investment in high-interest, accessible books at the school library.
The authors also review unsuccessful programs and attempts to integrate ELL needs with the CCSS. They cite examples in which educational institutions simply added more techniques to their ESL instruction in a haphazard or piecemeal manner rather than by determining fundamental shortcomings in curriculum and delivery. In other cases, teachers felt overburdened by the academic requirements of the CCSS and devoted little time to building skills in language arts. Other instructors failed to see the connection between building English skills and the standards, despite the fact that those connections are explicit. Finally, the pressure to make students achieve the national benchmarks should not lead to omitting ELLs and their unique backgrounds from the classroom conversation. Adopting the CCSS in the general and ELL classroom requires a commitment from the entire school community.
The International Reading Association points out that the Common Core movement, by emphasizing the standardization of academic goals, creates a paradox. The crux is that while outcomes may be standardized, teachers’ input cannot: students arrive in classrooms with vast differences in their experiences and target language literacy.
In fact, the aim of the developers of the CCSS was solely to unify benchmarks. The methods of attaining those benchmarks were left up to educators. This flexibility has the advantage of allowing educators the freedom to use their expertise and formulate lessons that best serve their students. Some educators feel, however, that the lack of a structured approach prescribing the implementation of the CCSS in teaching ELLs leaves teachers high and dry when it comes to juggling the new CCSS goals on top of fulfilling students’ needs in English language development.
Ultimately, ESL educators must adjust teaching, resources, and techniques to meet each student’s academic needs and address differences in existing schemas. Varying instruction is the only way teachers can provide the diverse input necessary to attain grade-level outcomes.
Conducting Ongoing Assessments
The International Reading Association also notes that meeting the goals of the CCSS requires that ESL teachers maintain a detailed and continuous awareness of their students’ language progress as well as their general academic levels. This awareness is needed to inform the necessary multiple modes of assessment, as well as constant adjustment of curricula, supplemental resources and instruction.
Fortunately, the best practices outlined in this article provide ESL and general educators with many creative, cross-curricular, and multimodal options to address these robust standards. These resources support teachers in a number of activities:
- Using rubrics to guide students through complex research projects
- Creating authentic tasks, along with criterion-based assessments to measure students’ skill mastery after completing those tasks
- Guiding students toward building portfolios of exemplary work
- Monitoring progress in language, writing, reading, and problem-solving through informal interviews and other casual modes of evaluation
The adoption of the CCSS is still recent, and many educators find themselves scrambling to meet the ELA and mathematics benchmarks while building ELL skills in English. Some critics have described the CCSS as merely a trend, and one that is poorly thought out with regard to adequate delivery of instruction to ELLs. For example, in an article in Language Magazine, Dr. Kate Kinsella finds that the CCSS emphasis on reading comprehension of academic text means that English learners can be overwhelmed by vocabulary instruction. However, she also has found strategies to contend with this emphasis on vocabulary, narrowing down target vocabulary instruction to the words that matter most. By doing so, she believes, educators can deliver more focused instruction, with measurable results.
Educators seeking additional resources for serving their ELLs with instruction that adheres to the CCSS can take advantage of several websites, articles, and forums with current information based on best practices:
- ¡Colorin Colorado!: This literacy website has a section dedicated to helping ELLs meet the CCSS. Resources include checklists, video modules, reviews of successful projects, opinion pieces by educators and researchers, and information for parents that is helpfully translated into several languages.
- Stanford University: Introduction to Content Instructions (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English, SDAIE): Witness experienced instructors in action, integrating standards-based, grade-level instruction with the necessary scaffolding and supports for ELLs to gain mastery. This series of videos features an algebra lesson, a biology lesson, and an English language arts lesson.
- Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association: The Common Core State Standards and English Learners: A Resource Page: The definitive organization for teachers of ELLs has multitudes of articles, videos, webinars, courses, professional development trainings, and other materials related to the CCSS. This resource page summarizes both TESOL’s recent articles and observations about the national standards and also reliable research from outside organizations and professionals.